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Chapter 74

When Manfred strode into Erik's chamber, the Icelander was struggling with a letter. Erik had met up with an Icelander pilgrim, and the chance to send a letter home was a rare one. Now he just had to choose his words with some care. There was always a chance the letter might not get home. There were things going on that he didn't want to tell the world about. Besides, there was Manfred's identity to be kept secret. He was tempted to write in runic, but that would convince any curious person this was full of secrets worth reading—or destroying if they could not read it.

"We need some air, Erik," said Manfred loudly.

Something about that tone stopped Erik from saying he had a letter to finish first. He put the letter carefully aside, the quill balanced across the inkpot.

They walked out. Full summer was coming and the smell rising off the canals was as unpleasant as the shimmering water was beautiful. Manfred picked a spot where they could lean against a wall in the shade. "Count Von Stemitz just came back from his visit to the Emperor. Who is now in Innsbruck, by the way."

Manfred snorted. "Yes—Innsbruck. He never leaves Mainz if he can help it! Which means . . ." Manfred glowered at nothing in particular—or the world in general. "Von Stemitz brought a reply for me from Charles Fredrik."

Manfred took a deep breath. "And he sent me this also."

It was a plain heavy gold ring, set with a polished bloodstone.

Erik raised an eyebrow. Plainly there was more to the ring than mere jewelry.

"Charles Fredrik is like the Doge," said Manfred. "He likes mechanical gadgets." He pressed the ring on the inside, under the stone, with a knife point. The bezels opened. And Manfred took the bloodstone out. He handed it to Erik. Upside down.

It was an imperial seal.

"He trusts you," Erik said mildly. The seal could be cut by any competent forger . . . but wouldn't be. The curse the Church magicians had laid on misuse was as much threat as the weight of the Emperor's anger. Neither was something even kings would take lightly.

Manfred slammed his meaty fist into his palm. "Damn it! I don't want this, Erik. I was enjoying Venice. Look what Francesca has got me into!"

"Here." Erik handed over the seal, carefully. "You'd better put it back into the ring. I suppose he was impressed by your new-found grasp of Venetian intrigue?"

"He's made me his privy emissary plenipotentiary to deal with the Venetian situation as it unfolds." The Breton prince ground his teeth. "He says that other rumblings have also reached him. He's having a tourney in Innsbruck, and will find reason to remain there with considerable force for some months."

Manfred sighed. "There's more," he continued. "My uncle has also discovered that there are a further one thousand, two hundred Knights of the Holy Trinity apparently on their way to Trieste. He wants to know why, and says if need be I must remind them that they hold the charter for their monasteries on imperial sufferance."

Erik reviewed a map in his mind. "Having the Emperor champing on the other side of the Brenner pass is going to be of no use if the Knights are in Trieste. They can get here a lot faster than he can. But Manfred, whatever is going on—invasion of this place is insanity. They're water people. Even ten thousand knights would just be drowned."

Manfred shook his head. "There's more to it than just straight invasion. But right now . . . well, their second fleet left a few weeks ago and the town is pretty thin of people, Erik. And now I have to find out what is going on. Damn Francesca. Damn Charles Fredrik."

Erik was amused. He noticed that Manfred was complaining but showing no signs of evading the orders. He was changing as he grew. And Erik had to admit quite a lot of that was due to the time he spent with Francesca. "Why don't you ask Francesca? Subtly, of course."

"I'm going to," said Manfred. "If anything good has come out of this it's that my uncle has sent me a pouch of jewels . . . that can be spent unobtrusively, which ducats can't. I was running low on money. I'm going to damn well spend some of his on wine and a specific woman. Oh, he sent instruction for you, too. 'Take any heads you feel necessary. I'll sign bits of paper for them later.' You want to start with that idiot Sachs? Although that would give Charles Fredrik more trouble with the Church than he wants."

Erik smiled dryly. "I don't think the Venetians would like it much either. Charles Fredrik is forgetting his writ doesn't run here."

A bell began to toll, furiously, over at the piazza. "Sounds like a fire or something. We'd better get back."

* * *

This was Venice. Word, racing like wildfire along the canals and alleys, beat them back to the embassy. The doorman greeted them with "Milan and Verona have embargoed Venetian barges coming up the Po and the Adige!"

Manfred took a deep breath. "It's starting," he said to Erik.

When Erik got back up to his room he found the quill pen had been moved. Slightly—but enough for him to notice. He hoped they'd enjoyed his letter regarding his wishes of best health for his sisters.

* * *

Francesca pulled a wry face. "Men always think there is a profit to be made from war." She looked at the emerald Manfred had given her. "There is, but for very few. For most, even the whores in an army's tail, war is a drain."

She sighed. "Now it seems you want me to become one of those who make a profit out of it."

Manfred showed he'd learned a great deal—about tact, at least. "In this particular case, you can bet that the Holy Roman Emperor does not want war."

Francesca looked speculatively at him. "And how would you know, Manfred?"

Manfred chuckled. "I've met Charles Fredrik a couple of times. He's an old woman who likes to stay in Mainz and fiddle with his map collection. He hates changing borders."

Erik had to admit it was masterfully done. He didn't know if it would fool someone like Francesca. But as they'd learned from Giuliano, the Venetian fencing-master, bravura was sometimes enough. This time it looked like Giuliano was right. But there was also the double feint . . .

Francesca nodded. "True. The Emperor has small running wars on the northern and eastern borders, but he has a reputation for not bestirring himself. And I'll bet the Empire is richer for it."

"There is a time for war," said Erik, mildly.

Francesca looked sharply at him. "Those who don't know you, Erik, are fooled by that tone of yours. Yes, there is a time for war. There are enemies who will use a desire for peace to weaken and devour you. And if I have to put my finger on what is happening here, these are the moves being enacted now. Have you noticed any shipping coming in?"

Manfred shrugged. "I don't really pay any attention."

Erik was far more geared to noticing vessels. "Lateen-rigged coasters. I haven't seen any bigger round ships for a week or so."

Francesca dimpled at him. "Trade has been down for the last while. You can bet the Spleto pirates are at work. By now I think there is a blockade. And how convenient all of this is, just after the spring convoys leave. The better part of eight thousand men at arms are out of the city. The cream of Venice's fighting boatmen. The Arsenalotti are still here of course, but my next prediction of trouble would be in the next biggest concentration of young disaffected men in the city. The Accademia and the various Scuolo. They'll build up pressure, trying to get Venice to start fighting from within."

She looked thoughtfully at the two. "Someone—or possibly several someones—is trying to orchestrate all this. The magical murders are part of the plot, I'm sure of it. You can tell your uncle Charles Fredrik that he's too early. The whole thing won't come to the boil until late summer."

Her reference to the Emperor as Manfred's uncle brought an instant silence to the room. Erik and Manfred were as rigid as boards.

"How the hell did you know?" demanded Manfred. "I didn't tell her, Erik—I swear!"

Francesca shrugged. "You're a Breton nobleman. Important enough to keep your identity and the fact you have a bodyguard secret. You have contacts with the Imperial Court—high enough to know fine details of the Emperor's movements. You have kept your own first name. I know a great deal about the royal houses of Europe. A Breton—with the same name as the Duke of Brittany's son, familiar with the court at Mainz. There are other possibilities . . . But none that have Erik ready to kill me."

Startled, Manfred looked over and saw that Erik had his heavy-bladed Shetland dagger in hand. He moved to block the way between the Icelander and the courtesan.

"You can't, Erik. You can't."

"I may have to," said Erik quietly.

"Not without killing me first."

Francesca stepped past Manfred. "I'm not a fool, Erik. I needed to do this to establish trust. If I intended to betray Manfred and sell this information . . . I would have kept quiet."

Erik digested this for a few seconds. Then he put the knife into the sheath in his boot. "I'll have to pass on who you are, and what you look like, to Charles Fredrik. And to my kin. You realize that . . . if harm comes to Manfred through this, nowhere on earth will be safe for you. Not even the court of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. You might still get away from the Emperor's assassins. But the Hohenstaffen Godar are ours. Linn gu linn. We avenge them. We always do."

Francesca patted him on the arm. "Nowhere is safe anyway. Be practical, Erik. If I sold Manfred's secret, I'd be well paid. But I'd also probably be killed before nightfall. Those who would use it, don't want to advertise who they are, and the answer could be obtained from me by torture. Now, instead of giving me half the information and forcing me to guess the rest . . . why don't you tell me as much as you can?"

She smiled sweetly at Manfred. "It'll cost you another emerald, my dear, but I'm sure I can put together a few more pieces. Once we know just who is moving with what intent you can tell your uncle how to counter it."

They sat and replayed incidents and pieces of the Venetian puzzle. When they came to the coiner incident, Francesca—who had simply listened up to this point—stopped them.

"A mold for forging coins? Coins are stamped, not molded. The blanks are molded, presumably without holes. They are then stamped with iron dies. Those dies are heavily guarded. Counted daily. Your lord Calenti spotted that, not the molds."

"Well, I presume the coiner was one of the conspirators—with access to the Venetian mint. So we can assume whatever is murdering these men magically is opposed to this conspiracy."

Francesca shrugged. "Conspirators fall out. Particularly about money. And different conspiracies fight one another too."

Erik groaned. "I wish I was back in Iceland! The clan feuds were murderous, true, but at least they weren't subtle. 'Your great-grandfather raped my great-grandmother.' Chop. 'Your third cousin twice removed stole a pig from my aunt's husband's father's second wife's—' "

Francesca patted him sympathetically. "I conclude several things. And the first is that Iceland is more complicated than you claim. The second is that the Knights of the Trinity are tied up in this. So probably is that Woden-casket. You've been here for more than a year, on what was originally supposed to have been a mere 'visit.' "

"And I cannot see the reason for it," said Erik gloomily.

Francesca continued. "The next point is that attack at the brothel was intended to get rid of you, Erik. Either dead, or maimed, or disgraced and sent home—or any combination thereof. This means someone already knows who Manfred is, and has known for a long time. I just thought I might point this out before you decide to kill me for it. I would guess they want Manfred dead at the hands of a Venetian. Venetian Case Vecchie, and with your uncle playing right into their hands looking for vengeance on Venice."

Manfred chuckled. "And after that? They just gave up?"

Francesca ruffled his hair. "Either they decided that both of you would be better killed at once, or they found out that Erik's departure would cause the Emperor to act immediately. Or, even simpler, after getting a taste of Erik's mayhem they decided it was just too risky."

Erik sighed. "You're lucky Abbot Sachs isn't listening to you, Francesca. He'd have you burned for witchcraft. Speaking of which, we're supposed to be involved in a witch-hunt tonight—over at the Accademia."


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